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Beach sand plan wins state approval

The problem surfaces after every storm that slams onto the Pinellas coast. Where will the money come from to replace the sand the storm washed away?

Last week, the Florida Legislature might have solved the problem.

Both the Senate and the House of Representatives unanimously approved bills that would establish a continuing source of millions of dollars for statewide beach renourishment. All that is needed is the governor's signature.

"It's been a long, hard battle but well worth the fight," said state Rep. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, who sponsored the bill in the House. "Our beaches are Florida's number one tourist attraction."

Mayor J.J. Beyrouti of Redington Shores said the bill, which dedicates a portion of the state's existing tax on real estate transaction stamps, was an important piece of legislation for beach communities throughout the state.

"This is a great result," Beyrouti said.

Clearwater's Mayor Rita Garvey was equally pleased.

"Even if you live inland, you would have to agree that our beaches are critical," Garvey said.

In the past, when a beach was washed away in a storm, local officials would troop to Tallahassee to lobby for renourishment money. Sometimes legislators were in a generous mood and the money would flow south in a smooth and easy manner. Most often, it would take years.

Officials in Clearwater and Belleair Beach have been working for more than a decade to get sand to replace beaches washed away by Hurricane Elena in 1985.

That renourishment project is expected to get under way this weekend when pipes and equipment are moved into place at the Belleair Beach access at Morgan Drive. Dredging should begin by the middle of next week at Egmont Key. The project extends from Sand Key in Clearwater to North Redington Beach.

Once the new funding plan is in place, some of the frustrations of the past should be eliminated, said Troy Flanagan, an aide to state Sen. Donald Sullivan, R-Seminole, who sponsored the bill in the Senate.

Once bare beaches are sandy again, "this bill will provide preventive maintenance," Flanagan said. "It is a very important bill for Sen. Sullivan as it is for all of Florida."

The new bill calls for a portion of general revenue funds generated from real estate stamps to be dedicated for beach renourishment. Next year, $10-million is to be set aside, $20-million the following year and $30-million every year after that. Over the minimum 15 years of the project, $420-million would be set aside for Florida coasts.

"It makes you feel comfortable after all these years of hassling for money," said Belleair Beach council member Elisabeth Schroeder.

The money will be deposited in an Ecosystem Management and Restoration Trust Fund, Jones said. The state Department of Environmental Protection will distribute the money as it sees fit, he said.

Last year, Jones failed in an attempt to set up the program using money generated from a tax on cruise ships. Legislators, he said, weren't willing to set up any type of new tax, even for something as important as beach renourishment.

The success of the bill this year "can be attributed to a different funding source," Jones said. "This money is already in place. There is no new tax."

The new legislation is so important to Florida's coasts, Jones suggested it be entitled "Beaches Forever."

"I can't think of anything I've ever done that made me happier for Florida," he said.